Iranian Philosopher Comments on Boycotting Philosophy Congress in Tehran

Translator’s Note: On November 10, the United Nations Educatioanl, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) cancelled plans to hold its annual Congress for World Philosophy Day in Tehran. The Iranian government now claims that it will hold the event without UNESCO sponsorship. This congress which was scheduled to be held on November 21 and 22, had been boycotted by a number of international philosophy scholars, including Jurgen Habermas. In addition, a group of Iranian philosophy scholars inside Iran and abroad had issued a Persian language “Call for Boycotting the Show Congress for World Philosophy in Tehran.” ( Below are excerpts from an interview with Mohammad Reza Nikfar, an Iranian philosopher in Germany who was one of the signatories of this statement. This interview was conducted by Hossein Azarnoush of Radio Zamaneh on October 31, 2010. This translation was published by Tehran Bureau on November 14, 2010.

Philosophy Is Not a Police Officer or Interrogator: A Conversation between Hossein Azarnoush and Mohammad Reza Nikfar about the first Congress for World Philosophy Day in Iran

Translated by Frieda Afary

RZ: Dr. Nikfar, This year, the Congress for World Philosophy Day is being held in Iran for the first time. Three statements have been issued so far to protest the convening of this congress. Why are Iranian intellectuals and philosophy graduates opposed to holding the congress in Iran?

MN: Imagine if those who condemned Socrates to death, also established an academy of philosophy. Such an act would have been a bitter, satirical and shameful spectacle. That is the situation we face today. Those who have forced important thinkers out of Iran, those who have murdered, tortured and imprisoned many university students and professors, are holding a philosophy congress. Interestingly enough, the teaching of philosophy along with other fields in the humanities have been suspended at the universities. There is a strong effort to give philosophy an Islamic foundation.

What could be a greater affront to philosophy than a government’s effort to set the foundation, direction and framework for it and expect it to become the ideological police officer and interrogator of other fields of study?

Philosophy in our time is critical thought. Its role is to examine and evaluate the following: what we know, what is correct conduct, what is our human condition, how we articulate ourselves and our world, and what barriers stand in the way of socialization and dialogue…

Our first criticism is naturally directed at the power whose function is to suppress the truth. Philosophy questions everything. We are dealing with a regime whose leader claims that he is not accountable to the earthly world but to another place.

Philosophy as questioning stands in opposition to this regime. Philosophy is about doubt: doubting everything, including everything considered holy. This holy regime which ultimately tries to use torture in prison to force its holiness on the doubting mind, is the enemy of philosophy.

Philosophy is wonder about the work of the world. From this vantage point, the Iranian regime is interesting for philosophy. How can so much shamelessness, deception and self-righteousness become synthesized? This is an interesting philosophical question. There needs to be a congress to discuss this subject.

RZ: One of the central issues of the congress is Islamic philosophy. If, as you correctly point out, philosophy is based on doubt, and jurisprudence is based on servitude and obedience, can we speak of “Islamic philosophy” as a synthesis of these two? In principle, is it correct to use the expression “Islamic philosophy?”

MN: First, concerning the expression:

Islam is the name for an occurrence which once took place in Arabia. This event, along with the characters involved in it, can be and must be examined independent of its aftermath.

Islam is the name of a religion. A religion which for whatever reason represents a great mass of people, is something that transcends its original occurrence.

Finally, Islam is the name of a glorious culture or civilization which has been greatly influenced by that religion and the consequential events which have taken place in its name.

Islamic philosophy is a cultural occurrence and a cultural current which is Islamic in the third sense stated above. Its likes can be found in the world of Christianity and Judaism or in India.

A philosopher qua philosopher is not concerned with jurisprudence. Ibn Rushd [Averroes, 1126-1198 C.E.] had studied jurisprudence. However, his Imam and leader was not a jurisprudent who had founded a school of thought, but rather Aristotle. In a work entitled Fasl al-Maqal [On the Harmony of Religions and Philosophy] which he called the final word in the discussion on the relationship of religion to philosophy, he distinguished between the discourse of religion and the discourse of philosophy. The role of philosophy was rationalism, questioning and arguing. Religion, in contrast, was a discourse on the level of popular opinion.

The role of a philosopher who makes such a distinction is not to create a synthesis but to discern divisions. Ibn Rushd is the most discriminating philosopher of the world of Islam.

Another philosopher on a par with Ibn Rushd is Muhammad Ibn Zakariya al-Razi [865-925 C.E.] His works have been destroyed by the jurisprudents to prevent us from having access to them. He is not a Muslim philosopher. However, had his works survived, they would have been placed within the framework of Islamic Philosophy, which for the historian of philosophy, characterizes not a faith content but a period and a diverse culture.

The main accomplishment of Al-Farabi [872-950 C.E.] and Ibn Sina [Avicenna, 980-1037 C.E. ] was also not the creation of a synthesis. If a synthesis was created here and there, it was a synthesis of Greek philosophy with an understanding of God and creation and the relationship of God to the world and the subject of prophecy.

In any case for the Islamic philosophers, the issue was not jurisprudence per se. In fact, if that were the issue, and if they had theorized about this subject, perhaps we would have been better off.

If you read Ibn Sina’s The Cure, you will see that in many cases, whenever he articulated a view, he concluded with critiquing the views of others. But who were these others? They were Greek philosophers whom Aristotle had also critiqued. In works such as The Cure, Islam and the real theoretical currents of the environment in which the book was written, were not really present. Nevertheless, such a work can be recognized as a work from the world of Islam.

Islamic philosophy is the philosophy of an age which has come to an end. If we consider Ibn Rushd’s death (1198 CE) to be the foundation, we are eight centuries distant from it. In its totality, this philosophical current belongs in a museum. It is significant from the standpoint of cultural studies and not for the sake of its philosophical content.

In order to understand the philosophical content of medieval Islamic philosophy, one must study the new philosophy. Without Kant, we cannot extract much from Ibn Sina. . We will learn some expressions and classifications which will be of no use and with which we cannot know our current place in the world. However, with the aid of the new philosophy, we can find things here and there , which can appear attractive and relevant on the basis of a new interpretational background.

A living philosophy has to be relevant. We can no longer really relate intellectually to Aristotle’s Physics. His description of nature is important. However, the work as a whole is only useful for a historian of science. Aristotle’s Organon can still be read. However, more and better logical information can be gathered if we read newer books. The Metaphysics is interesting. The most interesting however are the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics which are still directly relevant to our situation. For instance, you will not find a single important book in defense of democracy which has ignored Aristotle’s very thought-provoking critique of democracy.

We can find a set of relevant works and pieces among the writings of Islamic philosophers. For instance, the discussion of the nature of reason, or the relationship of body and soul in the works of Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd can be relevant to current debates. However, this subject is not something that the seminary of jurisprudence can tackle. . .

RZ: To what extent have you received support for the call to boycott the congress, of which you are a signatory.

MN: The response has been great. Friends who are in touch with Iran say that the statement has received support from university students in the field of philosophy and other fields of the humanities, as well as independent scholars. These friends say that they have received e-mail messages from many university students who have expressed an interest in signing the statement with their own names and profiles.

The statement has also received much support abroad, as far as I know. Most major media have covered it. Many Iranian students and professors have added their names to the list of original signatories. International professors are also aware of this call.

The Iranian regime knows that international guests are aware [of this boycott]. That is why the official site for the congress does not include the list of international speakers. For the first time in the history of the Congress of World Philosophy Day, the names of some of the guests have been withheld until the last moment. Such a gathering does not deserve to be called a “congress of philosophy.”

October 31, 2010

This translation was published by Tehran Bureau on November 14,2010.

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